My original plan was to start this blog by revisiting ideas in some of the film writings I have already done. I’m still going to do that, but I have made an impulsive decision to write something new (for me) first: a brief piece on the frogs in Magnolia.
Get Magnolia on Blu-ray or watch it now.
I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to watching PTA’s 2000 tour de force. Of the three PTA films I’ve seen (the other two are There Will Be Blood and The Master), it is certainly the one that moved me the most forcefully. I will not go so far as to claim it is PTA’s best work (or even my favorite), but it certainly did leave me reeling in a way that There Will Be Blood and The Master did not. As I said in my letterboxd “review” of the film, if you “want a movie to chew you up and spit you out sad and overwhelmed and stunned and confused and sad, watch Magnolia.”
I really like Magnolia. Still, I haven’t thought about it as much as I probably should, not yet any way. The ideas below are untested (and I welcome feedback on them). They may be total junk. They may be more obvious than I think. Maybe others have written them before. Shortly after watching the film, I read Roger Ebert’s review as well as this piece on Culture Snob. Recently, I also skimmed the beginning of a Chicago Tribune article written in 2000 (just a few weeks after the film’s release). I haven’t read anything else about the film, I haven’t talked about it with anyone, but here we go.
The author of the Culture Snob piece I mentioned writes the following: “I guess it’s a testament to Anderson’s script, direction, tone, pacing, and heavy foreshadowing that I’ve never heard anybody say anything along the lines of: ‘You know, I was with it right up until the frogs.'” I don’t fundamentally disagree with the author’s implications. To my mind, the frogs don’t derail the film. But, they could have, and (for me) they really almost did, at least for a moment.
But maybe that’s the point. I don’t know what it says about me as a viewer, but when I watched Magnolia, the sudden appearance of the frogs really threw me. I was thoroughly engrossed in the all of its stories and was emotionally exhausted (in a good way) by the experiences of the film’s multitude of characters. Magnolia runs over three hours, and by the time frogs start falling from the sky, Anderson has given his viewers plenty of time to become pretty convinced that they know what sort of film they’re watching and that they are (more or less) familiar with the rules of the world in which the film takes place.
While the film begins with narration that signals the overarching importance of chance and the improbable to its plot, that narration is hardly enough to prepare a viewer for a practically apocalyptic downpour of amphibians near the Magnolia’s end. This is all to say that, for second, I was totally taken aback by the frogs. I felt that, without warning, I had suddenly entered another film. It wasn’t until I noticed that none of the film’s characters were questioning the reality of the frogs (which is not to say they were expecting them to appear), that I decided to just go with it. I decided, that is, to remain immersed in the world of the film by accepting Stanley’s simple claim that “This [Frogs falling from the sky] happens. This is something that happens.” After all, it is possible to accept the reality of the frogs while also being surprised by their appearance, which I believe is exactly what Anderson wants his viewers to do.
As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, “This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.” Strange things happen, they happen all the time, but that does not keep them from being strange. Thus, to be alive, according to Magnolia, is to experience the strange, the absurd, the apparently coincidental. Over the (rather long) course of Magnolia, viewers may become desensitized to the improbable; even without the frogs, the film is overflowing with the strange and the unlikely. Perhaps, on one level, the frogs are meant to shock viewers so that they experience something truly strange as just that: strange.
Even casual viewers of Magnolia will notice that the frogs don’t only fall at the film’s climax, they also seem to trigger many of its climactic (and most absurdly coincidental) events. Moreover, in a film that disparages coincidence as much as Magnolia, it is (more likely than not) not a coincidence that frogs start falling from the sky at the same time that many of the film’s characters are drawn together. As Roger Ebert writes, “All of these threads converge, in one way or another, upon an event there is no way for the audience to anticipate. This event is not ‘cheating,’ as some critics have argued, because the prologue fully prepares the way for it, as do some subtle references to Exodus.”
The film brings many of its characters together with the frogs/while the frogs are falling. Similarly, it also uses the frogs to blur the boundaries between the world of the film and its viewers. The frogs are as much of a surprise to certain characters (with the notable exception of Stanley) as they are to Magnolia’s audiences. “There is no way for the audience to anticipate” the frogs, and no one in the film predicts them either (as the weather forecasts indicate).
According to the Chicago Tribune article I mentioned, if you called the number given in T.J. Mackey’s infomercial (1-877-TAMEHER) back in 2000, you would actually hear him describing his seduction program (it no longer works, I tried). This supports the claim that one of Anderson’s aims in Magnolia is to actively confuse the world of the film with the “reality” of its viewers.
And now, the Bible: “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs” (Exodus 8:2). Magnolia is a film both framed by and permeated with the importance of what we mere mortals often misinterpret as “chance.” A key point of the opening narration (and a good deal of the film) is that “chance” (or whatever the hell you want to call it) isn’t chance; rather, IT IS THE WAY THINGS ARE.
According to Magnolia, “chance” is embedded in the fabric of the universe; it is the modus operandi of the world the film portrays. The abundance of 8s and 2s in the film seems to support this. The numbers appear all over the film (in the weather reports, on clocks, on billboards). “Exodus 8:2” even makes an appearance on a card held up by someone in the quiz show audience. The numbers are everywhere; they are a clue to the eventual frog rain, and yet, the frogs still come as a shock to the film’s characters and viewers alike. In the same way, people are continually surprised by all sort of strange things, even though they “happen all the time.” Like the story the narrator tells at the beginning, like the way many of the film’s seemingly separate threads are woven together, frog-rain sounds absurd when reported after the fact, but that doesn’t change the fact that it can, does, and could happen.
Besides the fact of the 8s and 2s, I don’t think it matters all that much that frogs raining down is an event described in the Bible; it matters less that frog-rain is Biblical than that is mythical. Frog’s falling from the sky (usually because of tornadoes I believe) is also an urban legend. Even non-Christians sometimes claim that frogs raining down is something that happens, even though it seems absolutely ridiculous.
Clearly, there are a variety of ways in which one could choose to interpret the frogs in Magnolia. And yet, I do tend to favor a rather simple understanding of them. Above all, the frogs are the film’s most memorable declaration of the fact that you simply can’t predict the future. Magnolia is an ode to the unpredictable. For the most part, life doesn’t turn out the way Anderson’s characters planned. Similarly, none of the weather forecasts in the film predict a downpour of frogs. Thus, the frogs come as a slap in the face (or, perhaps, a harsh dose of reality) for those foolish enough to claim that they know what the future holds. In that way, they are a sort of summary of the entire film.
So, there you have it: some unpolished thoughts about those damn frogs. Hopefully my next piece will better developed and more substantial.
Until Next Time
Thanks for reading. And if you haven’t seen Magnolia, do so. It’ll be good for you.
I welcome feedback and further discussion on all my posts, so feel free to leave a comment.